When Roberto Rossellini decided to direct a film about children and the Italian resistance movement in war-torn, Nazi-occupied Rome in 1945, nobody could have predicted the lasting impact on cinema and legacy of Rome Open City (1945). What Italian neorealism did was give a voice to those that did not have it. Its entire philosophy revolved around using non-professional actors in real-life locations to present the stories of men, women and children of working class background, their preoccupations, fears and desires. The atrocities of war, and the long-lasting misery that came with it provided European cinema with a deeper, more nuanced insight into the lives of people who up until then had been marginalized and prevented from appearing on the silver screen. As Italian neorealism blossomed with the likes of De Sica (Bicycle Thieves), Visconti (La Terra Trema) and Fellini (La Strada), Japan witnessed the rise of a different kind of cinema. Established directors like Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, who had been forced to make propaganda films to support the empire’s war effort were finally allowed to explore and develop their own ideas: Kurosawa was initially drawn to stories of organized crime and violence (Drunken Angel and Stray Dog), while Ozu grew to become an expert of family dynamics (Late Spring and Tokyo Story). However, the director I want to talk about today, Kenji Mizoguchi, went down a different path, at least until the final year of his life. Mizoguchi’s most known works include Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff, stories of oppressed peasants set in feudal Japan and known for their theatricality, however his swan song, namely Street of Shame released the same year of Mizoguchi’s premature death, is the one that I consider to be, in a catalog of classics, his finest achievement. And here’s why.
Street of Shame is a film about prostitutes in the Red Light District of Tokyo as the country is trying to pass an anti-prostitution bill. Dreamland, the brothel which houses the women, is a place cut off from the rest of the world, a place that, if entered, offers different sets of rules that do not necessarily apply to the external world. For one, family members are not allowed inside, and clients who visit regularly are nothing but strangers when stumbled into outside the brothel’s doors. Dreamland is a place of endless debt: the women that work there are all in debt to each other and ultimately, to their pimp and manager. Their money is subject to increasing interest rates and is, in a way, what prevents them from leaving this place. The women working at Dreamland are, like in all of Mizoguchi films, real, fleshed-out characters: aging mothers still supporting their grown-up children, devoted wives working tirelessly to pay rent for their unemployed husbands, teenagers running away from home, hoping to make a name for themselves. Their evident differences in age, background and beauty are often subject to fights, acts of betrayal and feelings of hopelessness and despair in the face of a society that treats them purely based on one thing – their bodies. This society, having been driven to the ground by the devastating effects of war, now desperately trying to come back from the dead, has created and consistently reinforced a culture of misogyny, where it is okay for these women to openly admit to themselves ”I’m nothing but an object for sale.”
What becomes apparent when watching Street of Shame for the first time is how modern it feels. It never attempts to be anything other a study of oppressed women. Whereas Kurosawa and Ozu were busy making movies steeped in genre (Kurosawa with film noir, and Ozu with classical melodrama), Mizoguchi directed Street of Shame similarly to Rossellini with Rome Open City; the line separating these two films and the reality they present is razor thin. Mizoguchi’s Japan is busy rebuilding itself and its reputation. And reputation goes a long way. Reputation is what leads the son of one of the prostitutes to push her away after years of sacrifice and care. Reputation is also what drives the husband of one prostitute to try and hang himself. The oppression and abuse these women have endured over the years is constantly being swept under the rug in the name of a man’s reputation. Mizoguchi’s watchful eye sees this cruel irony, and lets it patiently unravel. He makes the male characters in Street of Shame stand in for Japan’s patriarchal society: the suffering these women undergo for them is taken for granted, and to them it is never a matter of lack of choice. In their minds, this is the profession these women wanted all along. Thankfully, Mizoguchi unmasks the hidden mechanisms that enable this cruel, endless cycle of oppression. When the father of one of the younger prostitutes, Mickey, announces he’s there to disown her after her shameful conduct, it is revealed that he is one of the brothel’s most frequent customers, known for his preference of younger flesh.
The cruel twists and revelations in the film are often served as vignettes. There is no real plot to be found, only a sad string of sequences that put the life of each woman on display. One of the more devastating instances occurs when Yasumi, one of the older prostitutes, tries to escape Dreamland in search of happiness in the form of marriage. Gathered outside, some of her friends and colleagues wave at her speeding car with evident envy. Yet, soon enough, Yasumi returns with tears in her eyes. Her marriage was as much of a trap as prostitution, because a woman is not supposed to have dreams and passions; a woman like Yasumi is to serve. At least at Dreamland she gets to charge for the service she provides. It is this realization, of a sealed destiny within the confines of the brothel, that makes Mizoguchi’s film feel timeless. This cast of characters, so vibrantly unique in their own right, are shoved into a corner and told outright: You don’t matter. Whatever change the country is undergoing, they are not part of it.
The reason movies like Street of Shame are so important is that their vision goes beyond the screen. In fact, Mizoguchi’s final film acted as a further motivator to pass Japan’s anti-prostitution bill in 1957, the year following the film’s release. The Japanese government considered Street of Shame a catalyst in the matter, and as a consequence introduced laws meant to protect sex workers from trafficking, punish third parties involved in the trade and rehabilitate women who chose to evade prostitution by setting up guidance homes in all regions of the country. In such instances, the power of cinema is undeniable, and it seems only fitting for a director of Mizoguchi’s skill and influence to leave this world by inspiring an entire society to strive toward progress. Neorealism, after all, was meant to do just that. Directors like Rossellini and De Sica wanted to inspire audiences to consider the movies they were watching as stark observations of everyday life. All of a sudden, the people they chose to ignore on the street were the same people they paid to watch on the screen.